When I was a child my mother would scuttle about the house juggling household tasks and a landline. She’d carry a meandering conversation with any one of my aunts in Colombia, and she had a special habit of doing so while stopping to say hello to the plants in and around our home. Her telephone walks would take her out the door, and she’d stand by our mango tree in the backyard, she’d water the plants, water the flowers that lined our driveway, put a hand on her hip, frown or smile, laugh or scold, keeping her movement, keeping her energy. Sometimes she’d have hung up and would go greet the fern, the bougainvillea, the blooming vines; sometimes she’d stay on the line, wrinkles across her forehead as she held the water container over a flowering aloe vera, concentrating on the plant or the content of the phone call, I don’t know. Didn’t matter who she’d be speaking to, or whether or not a conversation had started or ended with anyone nearby or a thousand miles distant, she always took the time and said hola to her plants as if they were people. She says hello to plants as if they are people. She says hello, she would say, she said . . . Doesn’t matter how I word it.
My mother speaks to plants.
In Spanish, the feminine word for it is ella, which also signifies “her.” I lived with my parents when I was in college. When my father got a job in Arkansas, he and my mother organized their belongings and left. I was tasked with watching the house until my father could sell it. But before she left, my mom gifted me a plant and asked me to acknowledge it daily; to sing it songs in Spanish; that the plant would know she had gone and would grow sad; then she placed a youthful little plant above my new sink, tucked her inside a dainty round pot, and smiled at me contently. I was supposed to care for it.
I thought she was crazy.
And I didn’t at all value this gift for what it was. It seemed to me like something pathetic, and I treated it that way.
Sitting on the windowsill of my kitchen, under the yellow light of a fluorescent bulb, between a soap dispenser shaped like a cow and a small figurine of the Virgin Mary, the plant was by all means insignificant. I write that as if it’s the plant’s fault. I didn’t speak to it. Didn’t know why my mother had left me with — “her.” And in the ensuing days, I hardly looked at her. I only remembered the plant days later when, at a glance, it dawned on me that I’ve gone ahead and murdered the poor thing. Severely neglected unto the steps of death. I hadn’t spoken to her or given her water. I hadn’t pushed her into the sunlight or sung to her in Spanish or done any number of the things my mother had done for her pequena matica.
Guilty guilty fucking plant-killer.
I recalled my mother’s request, and so resolved to nourish her little plant. Cante con ella y le recite poemas.
When I was a boy, I’d lie awake in my bed for hours. I’d get up and leave my room to wander the house. So many times I encountered my mom doing the same. And so in the dark and quiet I’d sit next to her. We wouldn’t talk. We sometimes did. Mostly didn’t. We just sat together. She always felt sad. When I was young I never knew why. She’d put her arm around me and hug me when it was time for us to go back to our rooms, and daylight would come and we never talked about being awake in the night.
Standing across from that pequena matica felt like standing in front of my mom. So in the dark and quiet I’d give a drink from my cup, I’d dab a few drops onto her, whatever she needed, and then I would drink. First her, then me. I’d tell what song was playing in my room, and what that girl meant to me, and why she had come over, and why I feel so alone. But of course, when the sun rose and day broke, we didn’t speak of it, and we did these things internally, pretending not to do them.
As much as I want to say to myself that I kept my promise, as much as I yearn to have seized the opportunity, to have spoken with warmth and conviction, to have discovered the force that keeps me silent, I ultimately failed in keeping my fucking plant alive. I have no illusions about myself.
Quick daydream that I’ll share with you:
I wake in the morning. I live in a home with a garden. I talk on the phone while I water my mother’s pequena matica. I am on the phone, frowning. After watering her, I thought it a lonely thing, and so brought home more, and potted them with care, and I water each of them as they need. The days are warm and bright; I’m with a sappy smile on my face, watering my timid lovely, ruminating on my experiences, observing the water, wishing that I too had received this same measure of pure, tranquil love. This sentiment derails me, my thoughts drift to my mother’s upbringing, and I look at the little canister, a quarter left now, and with a sigh, I keep pouring. Selfish of me to desire such a thing for myself.
My mother was a young girl when her mother died.
They were struck by a drunk driver. Her mom was driving, and my grandma died next to her in that broken car. It has taken me many years and many great painful strides to empathize with my mother. What must have that been like? I questioned myself, my attitudes both toward myself and my mother. I found it extremely difficult and debilitating to be alone in this world without a mom. I found myself guessing as to what sort of pain that might be, and what sort of strength must she have had in order to continue to love me, my sister, my father, her sisters. My mother must have felt so terribly alone. Was there anyone else awake with her before me? I hope so. It upsets me that I dare compare my loneliness and despair to hers. Overnight, she became the oldest woman in the house, in charge of three sisters and a grieving father — a father and his four daughters. What was it like to be children? What was it like to be and love as a young woman? Who did they run to about boys and dates and nights out? Was her father as emotionally available as her mother? What did they do for mother’s day? Where is she buried? Why hasn’t my mother visited her? Does my mom pray to her? What was she like?
I desire so strongly to ask her these questions, but I’m afraid of her responses. I’m afraid of jabbing her with the wrong memory, of probing too deeply. Perhaps she’s forgotten the pain. Perhaps she lives with it. I don’t want to remind her of the pain or make her aware of it. In all my years as a turbulent son, as a neurotic and impulsive boy, I’ve hurt my mother’s feelings on accident and by passion. I’ve regretted each time. Why am I so much better at hurt than at love? But why I am so hesitant to give outward and love as she loves? Why do I hesitate and hold back? Where did I learn this?
If I let myself think, and if I let myself accept responsibility, I have a fault. That is — speaking to a plant — I felt foolish at the thought of it. Yet, where is the embarrassment in projecting positive words toward a life? I spoke aloud in private. But why not around others? It wasn’t for a lack of words. Is there fear inside of wording a feeling and pushing it into the open? How unknown am I to myself! Where did I learn this restraint? How strongly I wish to let go! I hope you’ll appreciate the irony when I tell you the next plant in life I received was a cactus. I planted it in the earth and left it in better care. But still, something eats at me. Death is a long ways ahead, but what can be said of when the time comes and there are words I need to say?
My mom calls me and I don’t answer.
Not phone calls. Not texts. I don’t talk to her. I don’t water her. Not with my love, not with my words. I’m a desert. Not elegant or simple or profound. I’m commoner than the ugly cracks in dry rock. I say this to avoid fooling myself and you, that I might keep the truth where it is and not lose sight of it to vanity. It happens.
I think of that plant. I think of this essay. I think of how little attention and love I put toward the things that are closest to my heart. I can’t begin to understand why. I am three years from when I began writing this. I have a small succulence. I speak to it. I try to. I speak in high-pitched coos like I’m giving a pep-talk to an ant. Que mas, little buddy? My girlfriend walks in. God, she’s beautiful. It helps that she calls it the baby. Fuck. Children. I look at her and her big brown eyes, her blue hair, her dark caramel skin. I see a beautiful girl watching me, and the boy in me is frightened. I’m in love, surrounded by flora, and so much depends on my ability to speak to plants.